After his victory in Michigan, everyone expected John McCain to tack right in order to woo the core Republican constituency that had previously eluded him. Being John McCain, he did just the opposite, assaulting religious-right leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson in an extraordinary speech Monday morning in Virginia Beach.
What explains this strange decision? McCain’s daring move was based partly on genuine anger at Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed for the ugliness they unleashed against him in South Carolina and partly on his realistic analysis that he could not win the GOP nomination by competing head-to-head with George W. for conservative votes. His alternative was a Hail Mary pass aimed at Super Tuesday. By creating a backlash against the “agents of intolerance,” McCain hoped to sweep the relatively tolerant locales of California, New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Last night, his long ball landed with a plop in the Puget Sound. McCain’s strategy basically wrote off the entire South, including Virginia. A single-digit loss there can thus be counted as a better-than-expected performance. But McCain’s strategy absolutely required him to win the state of Washington, not just because he needed the delegates and the psychological lift of winning something the week before Super Tuesday, but also because Washington is culturally and politically a proxy for California. Without a boost from the only moderate-Republican state voting yesterday, McCain couldn’t hope to run well in the huge moderate state he needs to win a week from now.
For this reason, I didn’t understand why McCain wasn’t taking the Washington primary more seriously. He should have recognized it as a make-or-break state, the way Bill Bradley did (though to no avail). Instead, McCain pandered long-distance with a pledge to never tax the Internet and confined his recent campaigning there to two fleeting visits. He wasn’t around enough to make himself a presence in the state. But even this neglect doesn’t fully explain his not only blowing the Republican vote in Washington by 20 points but also losing (very narrowly) the “blanket” primary that includes the non-determinative ballots cast by unaffiliated voters. I’m not sure what does explain it, other than the likelihood that core Republican voters reacted badly against both McCain’s attempt to split their party and his campaign-trail double standards.
In any case, McCain’s leap-year meltdown leaves him with both momentum and mathematics working against him. If McCain loses New York or California or Ohio next week, he will have essentially no prayer of obtaining the 1,034 delegates required to win the nomination. And California looks pretty hopeless at this point–he’s 21 points behind in the latest Los Angeles Times poll. It’s nearly certain that even if McCain manages to attract enough Democrats and independents to win the popular vote in California, he’ll fail to win a majority of registered Republicans. As in Washington, it is only GOP votes that count in determining which candidate gets all of the state’s 162 delegates.
It may be slightly too early to write an obituary for the brilliantly improvisational McCain campaign. But realistically, he’s likely to hit the end of the line next week.